A surrealist collage of a novella: part fantasy, part alternate history, part catalogue raisonné.
In a pair of twining narratives set in 1941 and 1950, Miéville (This Census-Taker, 2016, etc.) tells about the events that led up to the “S-Blast”—a metaphysical event that loosed demons and manifestations of art, or “manifs,” on war-torn Paris—and the ongoing battle for the soul of the city, now under lockdown by the Nazis. The S-Blast released a blast of creative power that brought to life physical, visceral versions of images from works by the surrealists and the artists who influenced them, both famous and obscure. Thibaut, the protagonist, is a member of the Main à plume, a sort of surrealist militia that uses the magic power of these manifs to battle assorted other armed groups, which include the Wehrmacht, the Free French, the forces of Hell, the Vichy government, the occasional occultist, and the ordinary citizens of Paris. When Miéville describes “that stir of recognition—even at something inconceivable that he has never previously seen—that a manif brings,” he might equally well be describing the hallucinatory truth of the best surrealist art or of his own best work. But though it has its wonderful moments, this brief novel isn’t that. An exhausting deluge of references and descriptions of art, complete with footnotes, overwhelms the novella, which might have been better as a short story with a few well-chosen manifs.
Despite its clever concept, this novella feels a little too much like listening to someone go on and on about his dreams.